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El Sisi: the revolutionary president?

Maged Mandour

If Sisi decides to run for president, it might provide a breath of life to a revolutionary movement that has been badly damaged and splintered since the coup of June 30.

Over the weekend there were some dramatic announcements, later rescinded, that General El Sisi had been relieved of his position as Minister of Defense in preparation for the formal announcement of his presidential candidacy. El Sisi has been well positioned by the media, as well as by coopted intellectuals and the revolutionaries of yesterday, oppressors of today, to run and comfortably win any “free and fair” election that takes place in Egypt. His candidacy will be the most obvious symptom of the attempt of the Egyptian military to return to the pre-1967 political order, where the military ruled overtly, in a centralized fashion. But this attempt will prove much more difficult, and his decision to run might provide a breath of life to the revolutionary movement that has been badly damaged and splintered, since the coup of June 30.

A brief historical overview is in order. The regime during Nasser’s reign was an outright military regime, where the military overtly controlled the state, using a civilian cloak for legitimacy purposes, namely “The Nationalist Union”. However the power remained concentrated in the hands of the military, with officers controlling most posts in the government. This was possible due to the then hegemonic nature of the Egyptian political order, where the Nasser regime followed populist policies that benefited large segments of Egyptian society, particularly the middle and lower classes, providing the regime with a solid social base, which allowed it to rule alone, through a centralized power structure.

After the devastating defeat of 1967, this centralized power structure was no longer tenable for the regime. The military started to retreat from overt to covert rule, the government was civilianized, and the military began to rely on civilian partners in the ruling coalition, namely the crony capitalist class that relied on the state to subsidize capital accumulation, and the Islamist elites that agreed to act as an illiberal opposition in exchange for an increased role in civil society. This set-up in the end allowed the state to re-trench and withstand the onslaught from the once powerful Egyptian left. The above-mentioned partners are also known as the National Democratic Party (NDP), the ruling party under Mubarak and Sadat, and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which acted as an illiberal opposition to the military regime, crowding out genuine opposition, and supporting the regime in the realm of civil society.

The current situation in Egypt has severely damaged the traditional power structure, where the crony capitalist class and the Islamists played their conventional role, of acting as a shell and facilitators of military rule. The crony capitalist class were a focus of the anger of the masses of Egyptians that poured into the streets on 25 January 2011. The power of this class has been decimated, and its ability to act as a front for military rule has been severely damaged. With all the weaknesses of the revolutionary movement, which have been discussed elsewhere, it was nevertheless able to expose and severely diminish the ability of the crony capitalist class to act as a surrogate for military rule. The façade has been destroyed, and it is difficult to imagine a situation where the credentials of this class can be repaired.

The only other possible alternative was the Muslim Brotherhood, that was organically connected to the crony capitalist class. One only needs to remember that Khairat El Shater and Hassan Malik, among the top brass in the Brotherhood, are also successful members of the crony capitalist class. The Brotherhood seemed to present a logical escape from this conundrum, where it would replace the National Democratic Party as the ruling party, absorbing popular anger arising from unpopular policies, and a worsening economic and social situation. This would have allowed the military to enjoy its privileges, and maintain its position as an independent power centre heavily penetrating the State. In short, the Presidency of Morsi seemed to provide an invaluable opportunity. However, as things turned out, the lust for power, as well as, the failures of the Brotherhood have instead provided the military with the motivation and opportunity for what looks like a historic blunder.

The removal of the Brotherhood from power has placed the military in a difficult position. Their traditional allies have now been vilified and their ability to play their traditional role has been all but destroyed. There are a number of movements that might attempt to fill the void left by the National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, namely “Tamarod”, as a replacement of the National Democratic Party, and the Salafist Al-Nour party as a replacement for the Muslim Brotherhood. But these options are fragile and have a much weaker social base, in terms of civil society penetration. This places the military between a rock and a hard place, where they have to attempt to re-centralize the Egyptian power structure, in a manner that would make them the only ruling power in the land.

This helps to explain the apparent rush of the military to consolidate power, and their use of severely repressive techniques to silence any possible opposition, however timid it may be. One look at the Egyptian constitution and one can see the military’s glaring attempt to legalize repression, and protect its position. However, there is a fatal flaw in this plan, namely, that the military’s legitimacy is based on the demonization of the Brotherhood by labeling them as a terrorist organization, and the securitization of Egyptian political discourse. This means that support for the military, in essence, shares one of the main failures of the Egyptian revolutionary movement, namely that it is a rejectionist movement which is unable to offer the masses a vision that could act as the ideological basis for a new regime. The military is not offering civil society the basis for a new hegemonic political order, but calling on support that could dissipate with the waning of what is perceived by many, particularly in the urban middle classes, as the “threat of the Brotherhood”.

Another fatal mistake in the military`s power grab, is its new exposure to direct criticism from the revolutionary movements. Civil society, previously controlled by the military’s loyal allies, the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Democratic Party, has now been merged directly with the state, making any assault in the realm of civil society a direct assault on the State. In other words, the military has run out of allies capable of absorbing popular discontent, and civil society has lost its effectiveness as a moat that protects the State from direct assault.

In this way El Sisi running for president might be the best thing that has happened to the revolutionary movement. Social and economic failures will be blamed on those actually responsible, rather than on the sidekicks of the military. This could lead to further de-mystification of power relations within the Egyptian polity, exposing the military regime to direct attack and hastening the collapse of “false consciousness” that has spread throughout the urban middle classes. Attacks on the regime will now become more effective and painful, unless the military is able to find other allies who can effectively fill the shoes of the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Democratic Party. It is only a matter of time before repression reaches a point that becomes unacceptable, leading to severe instability and un-governability.

El Sisi, I sincerely hope that you run and win!      

About the author

Maged Mandour is a Cambridge graduate with a Masters in International Relations. The title of his thesis was "Egyptian foreign policy towards the Palestinian issue: a Gramscian approach".

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